Narrow Alleyways, Wide Angle Lenses

October 5, 2006

Doujiao Hutong SignMr. Shi waved for me to come, and I followed him through the heavy wooden doors through a series of haphazardly arranged passageways. We were in a compound that was home to a dozen families. There were low old buildings with new air conditioners perched awkwardly on top of the tile roofs. There were shelves filled with neatly stacked coal, and piles of not so neatly organized building materials that appeared to have been forgotten. There were hanging plants, bicycles and laundry drying.

Then we turned a corner and, suddenly, there was an enormous ornate archway with hundreds of intricate carvings. I lay on the dirty stone floor trying to capture the entire arch, oblivious to the dirt collecting on my jeans and shirt. I called out to Soyan asking her to bring my tripod so I could try and capture the arch in in a series of shots. Mr Shi, pointed at my lens with a sad expression, observing once again that it was a shame I didn’t have a wider lens. That was a disappointment to be sure, but I was having way too much fun to care.

As we walked back to the street Mr. Shi smiled and pointed to the stark warning on the front door, “Private home, keep out!” I smiled too. I am a laowai, a foreigner, and we were in smack in the middle of the squat ramshackle houses of Beijing’s hutongs. But I had the ultimate backstage pass - I was accompanied by Mr Shi, a Beijing photographer who grew up in a hutong and has spent years photographing them. He knew every street, door and drum stone. Mr. Shi loves the hutongs, and he was delighted, that I loved them too.

A drum stone and doorThe drum stones are a tourism draw today, but as recently as 20 years ago they were all but ignored, and a foreign buyer exported many of them before anyone thought to stop him. The long ignored ornate carvings are often, but not always, round and shaped a little bit like drums, thus the name. They are the outside portion the heavy stone bases used to support the large wooden doors to the many compounds that comprise the hutongs. The hutongs are the quickly vanishing neighborhoods of narrow alleys running only east/west so the entry gates of all the homes face south. This insures both lots of sunshine and compliance with feng shui, protecting the homes from the northern negative forces. Even smaller alleys run north/south connecting the main streets. This design was first implemented after Genghis Kahn reduced the city to rubble. Now their biggest threat is the impending Olympic modernization.

It was a lucky series of events that brought me here. I was at the Panjiayuan market on Saturday when I stumbled across Da Kang Photography Studio, a retail shop selling spectacular black and white photos of Beijing and China. I looked around the shop and I was immediately drawn to a framed photo of a small boy crouching over a large bowl, sucking up a long braid of noodles. I picked it up and motioned to the woman working there.

“This is a fantastic photo,” I said. Yan Bei smiled and said, “You’ve picked my favorite, that’s the one I put on the cards”. She handed me a small pamphlet for the shop bearing a copy of the photo I had seen, as well as information on the shop and the photographer’s resume. I looked at several more photos and I thought they were very good. I asked Yan Bei who the photographer was and she replied, “He’s my husband.”

The resume hanging on the wall revealed that “the husband”, Kang Xue Song, had been the executive police photographic journalist and had worked for the Beijing Morning Post. I decided I’d try to arrange to spend a couple hours with him in the hutongs. It turned out, he was heading to Tibet for two weeks, so after a flurry of Yan Bei arranged for a friend of his to come with me, and agreed to be my translator. We set a time to meet on Monday near the hutongs.

I was pretty excited, because I hadn’t yet seen the hutongs and having somebody who could teach me about photography and knew the hutongs was an ideal combination. On the other hand, I had really only met Yan Bei for 10 minutes and it was not her husband that would be meeting us, but “a very talented friend.” I was at least pretty confident that they would show up, but I was, by no means, certain.

Mr. Shi and gearI arrived at 7:30 am, a half hour early, and called Yan Bei’s cell phone and she assured me that she was on her way, and twenty minutes later she appeared with Mr. Shi right on time. He was wearing boots, army pants and a photographer’s vest over his shirt, but sported no equipment or camera. After a moment of disappointment, I was relieved to discover that not only did Mr. Shi have a camera, he had an over-sized tricycle with a passenger’s seat that was also a locking equipment cabinet and, a large wire mesh basket carrying a heavy duty tripod that looked like it had seen regular action for 20+ years.

Old woman in front of her home in the HutongMr. Shi seemed to be as purpose built as his bike. He was spritely and energetic, graceful and powerful. Even with my complete lack of understanding of Chinese, it was quickly clear that he was a charming and gregarious. As we began to wend our way through the narrow streets of the hutong, he seemed to know many of the local residents and to put almost all those that he met at ease. We strided through doors marked, “Keep Out” as if they said “Welcome”. Mr. Shi alternately persuaded the locals to let me photograph them and distracted them, long enough for me to shoot a few frames. He whisked us from spectacular doorway to doorway, proudly announcing, “these are the nicest drum stones”, or “do you know the Chinese actor who lives here?”. But he was not a tour guide, he was a photographer.

He produced a portable light to illuminate dark corners, and he critiqued my shots offering insight on the composition. “Yes, the carving is very pretty, but you can’t tell what it is, try shooting from an angle to show the the stone, the hinge and the door.” When I returned with my new shot, he reviewed it and either told me to try once more or beamed like a proud teacher. Sometimes he’d offer a thumbs up and a cheerful smile that said, “that a boy”. Of course, my favorite response was when the smile was followed by his leaping into action with his own lens raised to capture the shot himself.

Just as I had been struck by the intense physicality of cooking during our the cooking class Soyan and I took here in Beijing, she was struck by the physicality of photography. There was equipment to carry and move, and I was constantly climbing, crouching, and stretching or just sprawled out across the ground trying to get the right angle. Mr. Shi was constantly manipulating the environment to get the shot he wanted, moving trash and bikes, opening and closing doors and pulling back errant branches.

Hot Pot Lunch
Five hours after I started shooting and 903 photos later, the four of us finally stopped for an enormous hot pot of lamb and vegetables accompanied by several enormous beers. It was then that I thought I understood a local saying rooted in the knowledge of the strict geographic organization of the hutongs.

“Wo gaoxing de wo bu zhi bei le.” I was so happy I didn’t know which way was north. Indeed, my joy was so complete as to be disorienting.

See a selection of my Hutong Photos. You can also browse Yan Bei’s husband’s photos.


  1. This is an amazing travel blog. I envy the places you have been. Hehehe. I enjoyed your very good narrative and photos as well.

    Will be coming back here from time to time. Keep safe!

    Comment by Ferdz — October 7, 2006 @ 3:15 am

  2. [...] Tagging along on Jonathan’s photographic tour of the Beijing hutongs with the professional photographer Mr. Stone made me realize that there are core characteristics that all photographers share. [...]

    Pingback by Soyan Says… » The Photographer — October 10, 2006 @ 6:33 am

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